BENGHAZI // Libya's interim government has extended a deadline for fighters loyal to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi's to surrender.
The move is a bid by the country's new leadership to avoid a gruesome end to the conflict in the heart of the country.
Colonel Ahmed Bani, a spokesman for the rebel military, said yesterday that fighters had until September 10 to lay down their arms and recognise the National Transitional Council (NTC) as the legitimate governing body of Libya.
The rebel commanders had not planned for Col Qaddafi's forces to flee Tripoli without much of a fight to the cities of Sirte, Bani Walid and Sabha.
The cities form a triangular last stand, stretching from the coast to two desert cities in the interior of the country hundreds of kilometres away.
There has been speculation that Colonel Qaddafi is hiding in one of those three towns.
His wife, Safiya, sons Mohammed and Hannibal, and daughter Aisha fled to Algeria on Monday.
The Algerian newspaper El Watan reported that Col Qaddafi also sought refuge but the Algerian president refused to take his calls.
Algeria's foreign minister insisted yesterday that Col Qaddafi is not in Algeria.
Asked on Europe-1 radio if Col Qaddafi could be given asylum, Mourad Medelci said: "I don't believe so."
Rebel council spokesman Abdel-Hafiz Ghoga said yesterday that the rebels had extended the deadline for Sirte's surrender, giving the loyalist forces there one more week.
"There are good indications that things are moving in the right direction," he added.
But "some loyalist brigades are refusing to let our people into Sirte to negotiate", Mustafa Sagazly, deputy interior minister of the NTC, said yesterday.
He added that it was unclear just how big of an enemy force they will have to deal with if an invasion begins in more than a week.
The NTC initially issued an ultimatum to pro-Qaddafi forces in Sirte to surrender by tomorrow.
"They claim they have a lot of forces and weapons," Mr Sagazly said. "We don't think it's true. They have lost most of their resources."
Yesterday, the Syrian-based Al-Rai TV quoted Col Qaddafi as saying: "We won't surrender again. We are not women. We will keep fighting."
The new deadline for the rebels to surrender came after conflicting reports of offers made by two of Col Qaddafi's sons on Wednesday. A man identifying himself as Saif Al Islam Qaddafi - the western-educated son who modelled himself as a reformer before the uprising - called on loyalists to fight "day and night" in a call to Al-Rai TV.
"Attack the rats," he said, using a common insult the regime used for the rebel fighters.
In contrast, another man claiming to be another of Qaddafi's sons, Saadi, was negotiating the terms of his surrender.
He told Al-Arabiya television that the family was willing to hand control to the rebels.
"We don't mind. We are all Libyans," he reportedly said. "We have no problem to give them power."
Ahmed Said, an adviser to the interior minister in the rebels' interim government, said their forces had captured Col Qaddafi's foreign minister.
The minister, Abdelati Obeidi, reportedly was arrested on Tuesday at his farm in a suburb of Tripoli.
The stranglehold over the centre of the country has led to water being shut off to nearly all of Tripoli for more than a week.
An official from the Great Manmade River Authority said Qaddafi loyalists had the ability to disrupt more than 40 per cent of the country's water supply by harassing engineers at pumping stations along the underground pipelines from the southern mountains to the coast.
The standoff at Sirte is preventing Benghazi from pumping water to Tripoli, too.
"They have been fighting our people and they left the sites," said Abdussalam Jehawi, a board member of the authority.
"Now the rebels are sending troops to secure the pipeline. We expect to have the pipeline running within a week."
Rebels have had better success with regaining control of oilfields.
Commanders confirmed yesterday that forces had taken control of Maradah and Zillah deeper into the desert below the road toward Sirte.
Robin Mills, a Dubai-based energy economist, said that pro-Qaddafi forces may have control of about 20 per cent of the country's oil supplies through its troops in Sabha.
The southern desert city is near the oilfields in Murzuq.
The pipeline in the far west, which runs from the Wafa field up the Algerian border and eventually to Italy, could also be at risk.
"Since the pipeline runs close to Ghadamis, it might be threatened by Qaddafi forces depending on the still unclear situation there," Mr Mills said.
* With additional reporting by Associated Press